ST. PETERSBURG — Ron Taylor was just a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, but he remembers that first snook as if it were caught just yesterday.
"It was the biggest tussle … such a robust catch," recalled the 72-year-old marine biologist. "Over the years, the visions of snook in my brain, instead of fading, just became more brilliant.
"For many people, fishing for snook is not a sport," he said in a slow Alabama drawl. "It is a religion."
Taylor, a fixture at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's research lab in St. Petersburg, has been studying the state's most prized sportfish since 1982. Every year about this time, with snook season set to reopen Sept. 1, he fields questions from anglers.
For decades, Taylor has been something of a rock star to the state's fishing guides and hardcore anglers. Next week, "R.T.," as he called by colleagues and friends, will be honored as the world's most preeminent researcher on snook when American Fisheries Society honors him at its annual conference in Quebec City, Canada.
"I'm just a country boy, straight out of the briar patch," said Taylor, who downplayed the honor. "I've spent a lot of time studying snook and I can tell you we still have a lot to learn."
The William E. Ricker Resource Conservation Award is given to an individual or organization for long-term contributions that "advance aquatic resource conservation at a national or international level."
During the past 40 years, Taylor has travelled throughout Florida and the Caribbean, as well as to Mexico, Costa Rica and Australia for his research. He has focused primarily on snook, and has also studied king mackerel, red drum, spotted sea trout and swordfish.
"I've always gotten a lot of questions about snook," Taylor said. "It stirs people's passions like no other species."
But he added, "Sometimes, I think we're loving them to death."
The state's snook populations seem to run in cycles, he said. Numbers increase, then drop after a natural phenomenon like a killer freeze or red tide.
"Then it takes about four years for them to bounce back and get back to healthy numbers," he explained.
When Taylor started studying snook, most researchers believed the species could reach an age of about 7 years. "We've now found that they can live three times that long," he said.
All snook start out at as males then 90 percent switch sexes and turn into females. The big fish — the trophy catches — are always the breeders. "That is why it is always a good idea to practice catch-and-release," he said.
But perhaps the most interesting thing that Taylor has discovered in more than three decades of snook research is that the state's top saltwater fish is actually a freshwater fish.
"We've been thinking about it all wrong," he said. "Snook could actually spend most of their lives in the rivers and creeks and only go to saltwater to spawn."
Recent tagging data has revealed that most snook spend less than two months out of the year in saltwater.
Taylor's contributions to science have been particularly valuable here in Florida. According to the FWC, in 2004, the last year statistics were available, Florida anglers made 1.8 million snook trips, pumping about $620 million into the economy.
In recent years, however, the species has suffered severe setbacks. A series of cold fronts in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts. It was one of Florida's worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery.
In general, Florida's management of snook is widely considered a conservation success story. One reason is because over the years, anglers have released more and more snook, even when the season is open to harvest.
The species is also particularly hardy. Studies by Taylor and other biologists show that 98 percent of snook, a higher percentage than red drum or spotted seatrout, survive upon release.
"I am optimistic," said Taylor, who has no plans to retire. "We're back to the levels of the mid '90s. In general, snook are better off than when I started looking at them and that's a good thing."